A sea change seems to be occurring on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, with a small band of renovators creating veritable ‘palaces on wheels’. Their passion for restoring retro caravans to their former, crowning glory is teemed with varying levels of DIY skills, boundless enthusiasm and also a lot of fun.
We dived deep into this community of passionate DIYers and chatted with three of them to discover why they chose their particular models, how they managed to transform their prides and joy and gleaned a few top tips for others considering embarking upon a classic caravan restoration project.
Lives: Allambie Heights, NSW
Favourite caravan: Millard
Born in England, Rob moved to Sydney 20 years ago and has spent most of his career in the media — initially as a magazine journalist and then in a business role within television.
His introduction to renovating caravans came in quite a circuitous route.
“I was always a fan of op shops — I used to collect secondhand and antiquated books, and old vinyl records,” he said. “That then extended into retro ornaments and art; I just liked the feel of old things. Eventually I bought a cheap mid-century chest of drawers and repaired them, and I was hooked on restoration.”
One Christmas, Rob decided he was going to try and avoid the mall for a year and only make things or buy secondhand items as gifts — partly to break his shopping addiction, and partly as a reaction to consumer culture.
“I just realised that shopping had become a leisure pursuit and I wanted to start doing something myself,” he explained. “Making and repairing more stuff, and generally being more aware of the environment.
“My Dad was always somebody who mended and repaired things, rather than bought new — like a lot of his generation. I also started following Pinterest and began to upcycle things and make my own furniture. I’d buy reclaimed wood from the local tip and turn it into something original.”
Having coffee with a friend one Saturday morning they hit upon an idea to buy a caravan and renovate it.
“We were talking about tiny living and how it was taking off, and my friend said he’d been thinking about getting a caravan,” Rob said.
“A week later he phoned me on the way home from work and said he’d found one for $2000 that needed doing up. He asked if I wanted to put $1000 in and do it together.”
That was the start of the love affair with vans, and since then Rob has done two more with his mate.
“We restored an old Viscount to start with, then a second one, and then more recently we worked on a Millard. Neither of us was keen on the style of the Millards initially, but they’ve really grown on us – and they have loads of room inside.”
Rob tries to work in a sustainable way whenever possible and uses repurposed wood and materials.
“Obviously there are things like paint and adhesives that have to be bought, but we look to keep as much of the original vans as possible,” he said. “We sand and fill damaged walls and doors, and bring them back to life. Polish up old clocks and handles and fittings.
“We also buy some of the wood and furniture from op shops and the tip. There is some modernisation to be done, but you can create a great vintage feel from using old things in keeping with the van’s style.”
The vans tend to take around three months to restore, just working on Saturdays. And as Rob explains, it’s a welcome relief from sitting at a desk all week.
“It’s almost like a form of meditation,” he said. “We’re both office workers and at the weekends we unleash our ‘inner tradie’. We get the radio on, put on scruffy clothes and have fun doing creative, physical work.”
Next up, Rob has his sights set on even bigger projects.
“We’d love to turn a caravan into an old English pub!” he laughed. “Bar, chairs, tables and dartboard. Park it in the backyard and have our own home away from home.”
Lives: Dee Why, NSW
Favourite caravan: Viscount
As a young mum with a child in primary school, Daniela wanted to do something constructive with her spare time. After a few part-time jobs that were too hard to work around school hours, she hit upon an idea with her friend Zoe over a glass of wine.
“I saw on social media that the guys from The Block had renovated a beautiful van called Milly, and was showing my friend the pictures,”she recalled. “She jokingly said that we should try and do one together. But then the longer I thought about it, the more I thought it might be possible.”
After looking online for some time, the pair eventually found a small Franklin van on Gumtree that was perfect for their needs.
“It was a lovely old van that the old owners had loved but were too old to use,” she said. “They wanted it to go to a good home, and we promised we’d take care of it.”
They set about working as a team and around each other’s pressures as mums.
“It was perfect in terms of being flexible,” Daniela said. “I have a big backyard and so we just parked the van and worked on it when we were free. There was no pressure or hurry to get it finished; we wanted to enjoy the process and really do an amazing job.”
Neither Daniela nor Zoe had any previous experience of either DIY or caravans, but they were determined to give things a go. Their partners chipped in with some advice and help, but the pair did most things themselves. YouTube videos helped with some of the more technical stuff.
After six months of work, they had created Tallulah — a beautiful van, lovingly restored to its former glory. Very little was purchased new as Daniela and Zoe concentrated on restoring everything — including using the original fridge, cooker and sink.
They added some beautiful touches in terms of decoration, but made their own curtains and kept to original wood fixtures and fittings, wherever possible.
“We aren’t builders or carpenters, but we’re good at cleaning and had very artistic ideas for the van,” Daniela said. “It was really just about hard work and creativity and love. The more we could clean up and salvage, the less we had to make from scratch. And it was so nice taking the old couple’s van back to its original state.”
Both are quite spiritual in their approach to life and the van has a really positive energy about it as a result. They felt that from the moment they first saw it, and that has grown as they have worked on it.
“We wanted to create a van that we could sell and make some money on, but we wanted to create a beautiful experience for the family who bought it,” she explained. “We put a lot of love into decorating the van and wanted whoever bought it to feel that love.”
Currently Tallulah is up for sale on the Northern Beaches, and creating much interest. The duo will have a break before their next van, but see if fate puts something else in their path…
Lives: Cromer, NSW
Favourite caravan: Franklin
Of all these van renovators, Richard is probably the pick of the bunch. But then as a painter and decorator by trade, he has a slight advantage.
He is currently working on his second van, after renovating a van for his brother — also a resident of the Northern Beaches. It was something he loved doing, given their upbringing.
“My brother and I grew up in South Wales in a fairly poor mining village. We had summer holidays in a caravan in West Wales and it was a bit bleaker than the Northern Beaches of Sydney. A lot of grey and rain. So when my brother bought himself an old caravan to do up, I really wanted to help him.”
The van they renovated was a beauty and Richard’s brother regularly uses it to take his young family up and down the east coast of Australia. Now Richard has started working on his own van, so that he can join them on family holidays with his girlfriend and young son.
Richard recently bought himself an old Franklin van that initially looked beyond repair. But with his skills as a painter and decorator — and being quite a handyman — he is restoring it to its former glory. But it has been a labour of love.
“I like a challenge, and this is as big as it gets,” he said. “I had to gut the inside of the van completely as nothing could be saved, and I had to replace all of the walls and the floor. It’s practically a new van inside.
“The outside was in much better condition, but it’s needed plenty of sanding and restoring before I could paint it.”
The touches Richard has added inside have taken the van to the next level — he has lined the roof with reclaimed lightweight wood to give it an authentic vintage look. He’s also used a lot of pine and white lines to create a light and bright appearance.
Richard loves the aesthetics he has created, and prefers the vintage style to modern vans.
“Our neighbour has a new van that cost 10 times the price of this van,” he said. “It’s probably more practical and easier to tow, but I love the style of these retro vans. They’re a work of art.”
Inside, Richard wants to create a unique layout, mostly making things from light wood and buying original equipment online. He’s been scouring Facebook and eBay for original sinks and cookers and fridges, rather than buying modern stuff. And he’s been making his own doors and cabinets.
Most of the things he is doing is using wood that he has picked up at decorating jobs over the years — things discarded by the owners of the houses he paints.
“I always thought it would come in handy, but I didn’t expect to use it in a caravan!” he laughed.
Richard is planning to build a lightweight bed, new kitchen, seating area and bespoke cupboards. He’ll paint and varnish the whole thing using his skills in decoration. And then he’ll try to add further retro touches.
“It’s got the original badges on the outside of the van and I really want to bring those back up to scratch as a final embellishment.”